Blog Post

The Dangerous Myth of The Dream Job

by Timothy Ferriss

It is popular to fantasize about “dream jobs,” read about them, and envy those who have escaped the daily grind to revel in career nirvana. The web offers alluring new ways of making a living, ways that may allow you to profit from your deepest passions. But how do those who have found the promised land really feel? Beyond the sound bites they offer magazines lies a very different truth.

Converting passions into “work” is the fastest way to kill those passions. Surfing two hours on a Saturday to decompress from a hard week might be heaven, but waking up at 6 am every morning to do it 40 hours per week with difficult clients is a very different animal. Mixing business and pleasure can be a psychologically toxic cocktail.

If you depend on your dream job for daily bread or your children’s college tuition, we hit a nasty conundrum: the things that used to give you pleasure and get your mind out of the office now remind you of the evils of the 9-to-5 business world. What do you then do to give yourself a break?

Don’t expect too much of your work

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be interested in our work—we should be. I am saying that we shouldn’t expect too much of it. The more unrelated demands we make of a single vehicle, the less likely that vehicle—whether work or marriage—is to get us where we want to go.

By analogy, I would argue that fun sports are seldom the best path to fitness. Why? They are examples of recreation, and while there is a component of physical exertion, they are not the most time-efficient vehicles. Planned resistance training would be an example of pure exercise. Most people aren’t in their ideal shape because they attempt to mix recreation and exercise and, consequently, get both mediocre enjoyment and mediocre results.

Aim to separate instead of integrate

I am a strong advocate of work-life separation as opposed to work-life balance. The concept of work-life “balance” is a dangerous one because “balance” is often mistaken to mean blending, where work and personal tasks are alternated in the same environments, or where one activity is expected to provide both work and life. The Blackberry is checked while you wait for dinner in a restaurant, the laptop is cracked while your spouse waits for you in bed, and the passion you loved so dearly for 10 years is now expected to pay the mortgage. This keeps your mind in the office 24/7 and destroys the few activities you cherished for the pure joy of experiencing them. This produces—at best—a state of constant low-grade overwhelm, even if actual workload is low.

Are there examples of people who chase passions and make it work? Sure. That said, don’t judge a book by its cover. I’ve interviewed close to a dozen millionaire passion-as-work entrepreneurs who smile for the cameras and then tell me about the existential crisis they face every Monday morning when faced with reality: they have no escape from the office.

The ideal job? The one that takes the least time

For most of the planet, I would assert that the ideal dream job is the one that takes the least time. Be productive instead of busy, and recognize that life is full of special relationships and activities that need to be protected from one another. Focus on artful separation instead of integration, and you might just—as I did—feel as though an enormous burden has been lifted.

Expect a lot out of life, but don’t expect too much from your job. It’s just one tool. Make it a specific one.

Timothy Ferriss is the author of the new Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek

25 Responses to “The Dangerous Myth of The Dream Job”

  1. Justin Sermeno

    Good article Tim. It is true that when what you love becomes a grind it sometimes ceases to be what you love. But I disagree with your comments on “work life balance” and it’s association with blending. The “Work life separation” is something that should obviously be desired, but that can include working 80 hours a week and separating that from your 2 hours of free time. Work life balance is meant to first mean that work and life and kept separate. And secondly that they are even in time much like a balance with which you would compare the weight of two objects.

    Also, blending of work and life is not necessarily a bad thing. The examples that you gave for a blending of work and life are actually more like work replacing life.

  2. This article is 50% bullshit.

    A dream job is not Just the content and the action, -it’s the schedule. I’d hazard 99% of the ppl. ainterviewed were actually Over-Worked.

    If you go 60+h/wk, never delegate and imbalance your life to profession, work will eventually become awful, even if you’re Monica Bellucci’s personal boob stylist.

    Work is still freaking work! -It’s about Executing and personalities; that sucks sometimes. But belief, significance, achievement and growth still rock.

    Tim should get ANY of the ppl involved to clean toilets 8hrs/day for an indefinite period and then go back to the old jobs. -See how much they complain then.

    I DO agree that many people have an oversimplified childrens’ alphabet blocks view of many things, including dream jobs. The details Do matter, because life is Not Arithmetic, it’s multivariate differential Calculus.

  3. I can see what you’re talking about. I work 40 hours for one customer and about 10 for several smaller customers. It happens to me more and more that I take 10 hours off my biggest customer to be able to spend that time on the other projects. And that works for me. It saves me about two hours a week I can spend playing music, offline….

  4. When I was looking for a new job a couple years ago, one book was really influential during my job search – Fire Your Boss by Stephen M. Pollan. His argument is that you should not look for creative fulfillment in your job. Instead, you should look for the most money and best lifestyle available (sounds a lot like 4 Hour Workweek). Pollan was a life coach who counseled a lot of burnt-out creatives who sought to change the world through their day jobs. Instead, he told them to just look at their jobs as a means to an end and to pursue their creative life outside of work.

  5. The dream job is one that compensates me at the appropriate rate for the time that I must spend doing it, which keeps me from the time that I would rather spend elseware.(i.e. with my wife and children) I keep thinking that maybe the ideal situation is where one has several avocations, and can make a living persuing them all. Each one contributes a fraction of the total needed income; with a few hours here plus a few hours there, the pieces eventuallly make a larger whole.

  6. I agree whole heartedly here. There is so much more to life than work. You will enjoy work a lot more when you “do” your work, not just “be” at your work. When you focus on doing, you get your job done well and in a small amount of time. When your work week revolves around “being at work” then you get involved in wasteful practices.

  7. The idea of a dream job (like the idea of a dream marriage) is fundamentally flawed. I know that what I want is basic if elusive — a life that contains a lot of the experiences I enjoy and not too many of the experiences I don’t enjoy! Leaving aside things that are truly out of my control (e.g., “I would like my parents to be healthy.”), what a dream job means to me is not that I am passionate about it per se or that it takes little time. It’s that it doesn’t subject me to long, long periods of doing things I hate to do and preclude having the experiences I want even outside of the job. For example, if my job precludes my keeping up with my exercise, it negatively impacts my life beyond the work hours.

  8. Work-life balance can mean work-life separation. It can also mean work-life integration, work-life management, and creating meaning in both one’s work and one’s personal life. It can also mean all of the aforementioned at different times in a person’s life or even different times in a day or week.

    The point is that it’s different and personal for everyone. Nobody has the right to tell you how to define your ideal balance.

    Do you need to love your job? Not necessarily. Most people don’t love their work. Many like it, some tolerate it. For most, it simply supports their lifestyle.

  9. Tim’s book is great and really shows you how you can cut back on your work yet still maintain the same (or greater) levels of productivity. My only complaint about it is that it reads an awful lot like an infomercial in places, but that’s okay. The ideas and explanations are all sound.

    One of the best reads I’ve had in a while.

  10. This post has a lot of points that I’ve recently come to accept – allowing me to see my current job as better than I’d realized.
    Still, I think it’s worthwhile to add some other goals for a “real” dreamjob. In my mind, while it doesn’t help to torture ourselves by always looking for more, it’s important that we realize what we really want, so that if the opportunity arises – or if we see a way to make the opportunity arise – we can jump on it.

    So in addition to taking little time, I’d add:
    – pays sufficiently well
    – allows me to work with cool technologies
    – challenging but not stressful
    – chance to work with nice colleagues
    – chance to work on a final product that is meaningful (ideally even spiritually rewarding)

  11. I blend work and life sometimes but unlike others I dont have a blackberry to be addicted to. For me, I love my work and if i have to bring my laptop on vacation so be it. But I’m at a point now where I can get by for a week by just answering a few daily emails. Most of my business is outsourced to allow for flexibility of my time. I agree that the best job is one that involves the least amount of work. Thats why I dont want employees. I’d rather be a small business with fewer headaches than a 20 person company that sucks up my time.